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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gail Kerr: US Immigration Needs to Open Doors to Foreign Tech Workers

A pro-business group that landed in Nashville this week is spreading a unique message: “Immigrant” is not a dirty word. At a time when there are 1,000 technology jobs open and waiting for good candidates in Nashville-area businesses, this group is realizing America has thrown up barriers that stop some of the brightest minds in foreign companies from even attempting to relocate here.
The Partnership for a New American Economy, led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and backed by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, came to town this week to persuade other Nashville leaders to get on board. It’s not a new message at all: It used to be that coming to America was a dream come true, particularly for the world’s smartest high-tech workers. But then the trend of hating all immigrants spread rapidly through the country, and the message became that we didn't want any foreigners touching our soil.

Thank goodness this group is singing a different tune. It is pushing Congress to steer clear of hot-button fights over amnesty and border patrols and, instead, focus on real, practical immigration law reform. It favors laws making it easier for high-tech workers to get visas to move here and to keep international students here once they graduate. It comes just a few weeks after news broke that Nashville job recruiters are taking extraordinary steps to find people to fill high-tech jobs. Technology talent needs to be home-grown, but it isn’t right now. Chamber officials are working with 18 universities to entice students to enter tech programs. Local companies also are trying to train the existing pool of unemployed workers who are already here. And, recruiters are turning to places like Silicon Valley to hire and attract technology companies.

Still, 1,000 empty tech jobs is a slew of opportunity. The trend to look at immigrants as a source for filling these jobs is a natural next step. The Partnership for a New American Economy is a year-old group that focuses on loosening federal law to attract more scientists and engineers from foreign countries. For example, it wants to create an entrepreneur visa to draw high-tech talent from countries including China, India and Canada who want to start their own businesses.

Right now, America to those people “is more foreboding than it should be,” Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said at a Nashville panel discussion. One of the business people backing the effort is Colin Reed, chairman and chief executive of Gaylord Entertainment Co. He would like to see it become easier to get a tourism visa to visit American cities. The waits for those now are lengthy, and the process requires an interview with the State Department. Why bother, when it’s easier to vacation in other countries?

“We’ve got to have stronger leadership in both branches of government to tackle these issues and not dance around the outside,” Reed said. He’s right on the money. People have become so paranoid about “illegal immigrants” that America has shot itself in the foot when it comes to attracting smart workers, new business owners and tourists.

How refreshing to see a group like this step up and confront those who want to make legal immigration a prickly, emotional issue.

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